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The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion is composed of 38 self-governing churches, located in 160 countries on five continents. The churches are linked by their common ground in scripture, tradition, and reason. Moreover, the Anglican Communion is connected by a recognition of the Eucharist as the central act of worship and the acceptance of the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed as the statements of faith. The Eucharist and baptism are recognized as the central acts of worship and the Anglican Communion accepts the standards of worship set forth in the revised Book of Common Prayer, although separate congregations are permitted leeway in the observance of ritual.
The Church of England separated itself from the Roman Catholic Church mostly for political reasons. Consequently, it still has much in common in terms of doctrine with Roman Catholicism (in addition to commonalities with Eastern Orthodoxy). The Church was formally organized in the late 18th century when the American colonies proclaimed independence from Great Britain. Ties between the Church of the colonies and the Church of England were severed after the American Revolution. As a result, the Episcopal Church became a separate entity, dedicated to American ideals such as the separation of church and state but committed to preserving its Anglican heritage. Today, there are between 2 and 3 million baptized members throughout the world.
The basic unit of organization in the Episcopal Church is the diocese, a group of at least six parishes under the leadership of one bishop. Today, the Church comprises 100 domestic dioceses and 13 international dioceses. Within the United States, Massachusetts is the largest diocese with over 91,000 members, while Eau Claire, Wisconsin is the smallest, with just over 2,500 members. All of these dioceses are under the jurisdiction of a presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
The presiding bishop serves as the chief pastor of the church, president of the House of Bishops, president of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, and president and chair of the Executive Council. The presiding bishop is elected by the House of Bishops and confirmed by the House of Deputies to fulfill such responsibilities as initiating and developing policy and strategy of the church, serving as the chief consecrator at ordinations of bishops, and representing the Episcopal Church to the world.
In addition to the presiding bishop, the Episcopal Church recognizes three orders of ordained ministers: bishops, priests, and deacons. Bishops preside over a diocese and priests are usually the primary ministers in local congregations, often assisted by deacons. Bishops ordain priests; priests are empowered to celebrate the Eucharist, pronounce absolution, and perform other sacraments. Deacons are ordained ministers charged with reading the gospel at the Eucharist and preparing the altar. Until the latter part of the 20th century, males were the only individuals eligible for ordination into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. However, in 1974 the American Episcopal Church granted women ordination into the priesthood, and in 1988 the diocese of Massachusetts elected the first woman bishop. However, the decision to ordain women remains optional in each diocese. Today three dioceses in the United States continue to refuse to ordain or recognize the priesthood of women (Fort Worth, TX; Quincy, IL; and San Joaquin, CA).
The Church believes that the Bible is "The Word of God" and that all that is required for salvation is contained within it. However, they also believe that lessons in life can be learned outside of scripture and that scripture has to be interpreted according to tradition and reason. The standards of doctrine within the Episcopal Church are the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1801, and the Book of Common Prayer. Although these serve as the standard doctrines, the Episcopal Church has adopted an understanding of latitudinarianism and is therefore accommodating of alternative stances. As such, Episcopalians within the same church may be pulled more toward the practice of Calvinism, Catholicism, or Methodism. Regardless of particular stance, the Book of Common Prayer is held as a common framework that governs the worship of all Anglicans, with a varied commitment to the Thirty-Nine Articles. At the essence of Anglican spirituality are three things: scripture, tradition, and reason. The faith of the Episcopal Church is grounded in a spirituality of grace. As such, those who worship in the Episcopal Church believe in a faith that is based upon the scriptures and thus interpret the scriptures in the light of the Church's tradition and reason.